One of the biggest complaints about home security systems today is that they can be faulty and often cause false alarms. False alarms occur whenever the system is tripped by circumstances that would not normally cause an alarm. False alarms are a source of frustration for homeowners, alarm companies, and local police forces as all of them face negative consequences from these system errors.
So what exactly is a false alarm? According to the False Alarm Reduction Association (FARA) a “False Alarm means an Alarm Dispatch Request to a law enforcement agency, when the responding law enforcement officer finds no evidence of a criminal offense or attempted criminal offense after having completed a timely investigation of the Alarm Site.”22 In other words, a false alarm is when an officer responds, but there is clearly no sign of criminal activity.
In this article we seek to explain the effects of false alarms, why they happen, and what can be done to prevent them. It is critical that if your system is experiencing false alarms that you take measures to correct it. Left unattended, these alarms can disrupt your sleep and rack up a hefty fine at your county sheriff’s office! Not to mention, as Freakonomics author Stephen J. Dubner explains in a recent podcast to his blog, they can lead to a huge waste of taxpayer dollars as companies are able to push the costs of false alarms onto local police and sheriff’s departments.1
The Effects of Home Security False Alarms
Many times homeowners are unaware that their system has been sending an alarm signal either because they mistakenly tripped it or because their alarm system is silent. Users with sirens or other loud alerts however face the altogether different problem or trying to sleep through a blaring system that is going off for no reason, however, homeowners are not the only ones to face ill effects from false alarms.
The Costs of False Alarm Fees
In response to the number of annual false alarms, most cities have passed ordinances that fine false alarms and duress signals. Many cities now require an annual alarm permit as well. Look to the table below for some of the costs of false alarms around the country!
Law Enforcement Problems
Studies have estimated that anywhere from 94% to 99% of all alarms are false alarms.14,15 Most municipalities and sheriff’s offices are aware of this fact which is why many cities require home or business owners to purchase an alarm permit that is usually anywhere from $10-$40 per year. In addition, most cities will levy hefty fines against anyone who has multiple false alarms, fines can even cost several hundred dollars per infraction!
The reason for this is that when the dispatch order is sent to the police station from your monitoring center, officers have no way of knowing whether it is a false alarm or not. The problem is so serious that some cities, such as Chicago, have even passed laws prohibiting alarms wired directly to 911.16 Cities across the country waste billions of dollars every year sending police to respond to faulty keypads and cats in front of motion detectors. As a result of this police efforts are not always able to respond to real emergencies because of the numerous false alarms.
Effects on Alarm Companies
Alarm system providers and monitoring services face negative consequences as well. Brands that are known to often trigger false alarms are rated poorly by consumers who lose their faith in them as a company and can really give them a bad reputation over time. (As a quick browse through our review section will show, false alarms are one of the most common complaints from our users)
The problem is so widespread in the industry that service providers have made false alarm reduction a major company goal. When successful at reducing rates, service providers receive great notice and praise; such as Guardian Protection Services who was recently awarded the FARA Industry False Alarm Reduction Achievement Award.17
What Causes False Alarms In Security Systems
False alarms have many causes. However, most of the time they come from a few major groups of issues. The first of these groups is human error. Whether it’s a forgotten code or accidentally forgetting to disarm the system people trip their own alarms all of the time. A major source of this problem is that people don’t treat their system with importance and never really learn how it is supposed to work. Many users have difficulty performing normal functions such as system tests or don’t even know how to in the first place. When experiencing issues with your system often the first and best place to look is at the instruction manual.
One of the next most common sources of frustration is battery life. Some alarm systems will trigger themselves accidentally on a low battery or if connected to a poor power source. Make sure you know the difference between when your alarm is going off and when it is simply trying to alert you that the battery is low. Poor power systems can also lead to false alarms such as faulty or exposed wiring and sudden power outages.
Unsecured Windows and Doors
It is also possible that your alarm is misreading one of your doors or windows. A window left partway open easily be blown violently enough to trigger an alarm. Making sure all of your doors and windows are firmly shut can help to eliminate this as a potential source of trouble.
When having your system installed you should make sure to consider whether or not you will need pet proof motion detectors. Some motion detectors can be easily tripped by a cat or dog while you are away from home. If you are unsure during installation if your sensors are pet proof, ask your technician and have your pet test them immediately after installing them.
Equipment and Installation
While the other sources are generally more likely, not every alarm is a good one. If you have eliminated all other possibilities it is likely that either some part of your alarm system is defective, or it was not properly installed. Particularly for DIY home installations even a slight misalignment can cause repeated issues.
How to Reduce False Alarms From Your System
Luckily, precisely because so many of the causes are simple mistakes, it is often easy to solve your false alarm problems. The first thing you should do is to make sure that you know how to properly use your alarm system. Take an active role in the installation and ask the technician any questions that you might have about how to use your alarm. Don’t think that you know better than everyone else and can do just fine on your own, in some cities nearly 70% of all alarm users had caused one or two false alarms.18
Some companies even offer a brief window of time after installation called a “soak period” that you can choose to ignore any alarms as you teach yourself how the system works and get in the habit of using it. Taking advantage of this window can allow you to learn all of the ins and outs of your system without getting slapped with fines.
Train Your Family
Remember that anyone can trip the alarm! A curious child can easily trip most home security systems when playing with the control panel. Make sure that everyone in your home who has access to the panel knows how to arm and disarm your system and that it is not a toy.
Choose the Home Security System That’s Best For You
Only you know what’s best when it comes to your home security. If pets are a major concern, make sure that you have pet proof sensors, if you aren’t the DIY type maybe consider letting professionals install your alarm. Once you know your homes security needs you can do your homework to find the alarm that will best protect you and your family.
Test Your Home Security System
Testing your security system regularly not only helps familiarize you with how it works, but it is also one of the easiest ways to detect if there is a problem with your system before it’s too late.
Maintain Your Security System
From time to time you should go around your home to check that your system is in good working order. With many home security providers proper testing & maintenance of your system is as a requirement and not doing so may void your warranty. Sensors can have dust or cobwebs build up on them overtime which can lead to failure or false alarms. By making sure your equipment is in good working order you can reduce the risk of it becoming defective.
Consider Verified Response
One option you can opt into is to require a verified response before your alarm system calls the police. For example, an alarm can be triggered when a window is broken, but then only calls the police after audio of video is picked up of someone trying to enter the house. According to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, verified response is the #1 most effective method to reduce false alarms.19,20
Consider Enhanced Telephonic Verification
Another sometimes optional service is enhanced electronic verification. Using this method of verification, the alarm company calls your home immediately after the alarm is received but before law enforcement dispatch is requested. If an authorized user answers and indicates an error, and verifies his/her identity, no dispatch is requested. If a user is not reached on the first call, a second call is made to another responsible party or owner at a different telephone number when the first call does not succeed.
False alarms have been a huge problem for years costing taxpayers roughly $1.8 billion in 2002, and as alarms have grown more popular, estimates place the damages as high as $2.5 billion in 2011.18,21 Fortunately for taxpayers and homeowners alike, false alarms are an easy problem to solve. Having the presence of mind to maintain and properly operate your personal alarm system will dramatically reduce your own chances of having a false alarm ultimately saving you both time and money.